Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis

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Defeating ISIS Requires Partnering with Arab Sunni States, Resolving Syrian Conflict, Engaging Iran to End Regional Sectarian Tension

The threat posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which calls itself now the Islamic State, has eclipsed that of its mother group Al Qaeda, and has prompted Western powers to come together to create an alliance to eliminate this entity that has spread like cancer in Syria and Iraq and is starting to spill over into neighboring states. Following a NATO summit in Wales a group of ten NATO states led by the United States have formed the core of a large alliance that is hoped to include Arab and Asian States to combat ISIS. On the eve of the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, President Barak Obama outlined the strategy for crushing ISIS. His strategy could be summarized as such: Waging an air-campaign against ISIS positions in Iraq and Syria and relying on the newly built Iraqi Army along with Kurdish forces and Free Syrian Army moderate groups to march on the terrorist’s group strongholds in Iraq and Syria to fill the vacuum, with financial, humanitarian and military support from an international alliance that will include Arab Sunni states and exclude Iran and the Syrian regime. There will be no American boots on the ground except for few hundred troops who will provide training and consultation to Iraqi and Kurdish fighters as well as Syrian rebels.

The task before this alliance is way much more complicated than simply attacking ISIS and driving its forces from Iraqi towns and cities that were occupied in a major offensive last June. ISIS is a byproduct of a failed international war on terrorism and a Sunni-Shiite sectarian war in Syria and Iraq that has been neglected by the international community for the past two years. How can the Obama Administration expect the “moderate” Syrian rebel groups to take on ISIS while they are still locked in a fierce war with the Iranian-backed Syrian regime? How can the Obama Administration expect to have Sunni and Shiite troops in Iraq to fight side-by-side ISIS while Iranian-backed Shiite militias are fighting Syrian Sunni rebels next door? The Obama strategy still lacks very important political dimensions that are crucial for a true victory against ISIS and Al-Qaeda in the Levant.

Syrian Regime and Tehran
The Syrian conflict must be addressed seriously if the war on ISIS is to achieve effective results. The new Alliance must agree on steps to force the Syrian regime to come to the table of negotiations to agree on a workable plan for a transition of power that will end the reign of Bashar Assad. The Alliance, especially the U.S., must be willing to use force against the Syrian regime if need be – like establish a no-fly zone - to bring about this objective. ISIS fate today is in one way or another linked to that of the Syrian regime.

Iranian-backed and controlled Shiite militias operating in Syria and Iraq, and branded by several Western and Arab states as terrorist, must be targeted by the Alliance to make it a war against all terrorists and not just the Sunni groups. It is time for the Obama Administration to address this matter seriously and stop sidelining it for the sake of the nuclear talks with Tehran. It will be impossible to expect a true and genuine support from Sunni Arab states if the Alliance and the U.S. Strategy ignores the presence of Shiite militias roaming in Iraq and Syria and agitating sectarian tension. International pressure must be exerted on Tehran to disband these groups otherwise they must become a legitimate target of the military campaign by the Alliance.

Excluding Iran from the Alliance should not mean that Tehran should not be engaged to resolve its political disputes with its Arab Gulf neighbors. International efforts must be exerted to encourage Iranian officials to meet with their counterparts in the Arabian Gulf to agree on outstanding issues that have heightened tension in the region. International efforts must emphasize the need for Iran to end its policy of exporting the revolution and the arming of Shiite militias in Arab countries in order to assert its influence. This longstanding Iranian policy has generated a strong sense of frustration and oppression by many Sunnis in the Arab world and facilitated the task of extremist groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda to penetrate parts of the Middle East region and enjoy a hospitable environment rich with young recruits. The international community must realize that continuing to ignore Iran’s policy of using Shiite militias and sectarian approaches to gain more influence in the region will lead to the awakening of the Sunni Giant. The ISIS was a first indication of things yet to come if nothing is done about the current situation.

Moderate Arab Sunni States
Approaching Arab Sunni states to join the Alliance is a commended move by the U.S. Administration. These states can play a major role because only moderate Muslim Sunni forces can effectively combat radical Sunni groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda. Using Shiite or Western forces to fight the Sunni groups in an environment of Sunni-Shiite sectarian war will only lead to the radicalization of more Sunnis and the further deterioration of the situation in the Middle East region. But again, this must be done as part of a comprehensive strategy that will include either targeting Shiite militias or engaging Iran to remove these militias from the arena.

Time is of the essence for the Alliance and the implementation of its developing strategy to combat ISIS and terrorism. Observing radical Sunni and Shiite forces engaged in a bloody war of attrition in Syria and Iraq over the past two years has not led to the eradication of these forces as some Western officials might have hoped, but led to the contrary. These radical groups grew larger in size and occupied more territory and expanded their recruiting grounds to the West and other parts of the world. The sectarian war is radicalizing the moderate Sunnis and Shiites and will pose a serious threat to international security. It is time to bring it to an end and to strengthen the moderate Arab Sunni states because they are now the last standing barrier preventing the emergence of radical Muslim Sunni powers that will take the region, and maybe good part of Asia, back to the dark ages.

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